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A statue without limitations

It was a tough day for a woman to get a little attention. For on Aug. 5, 1884 , the President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, was visiting a dairy farm in Dutchess County, N.Y.; an Ohio mine strike was in full swing; farmers in the Dakotas were worried about crop damage from a series of summer storms; and the Northern Pacific Railroad announced a 5 percent reduction in cattle rates.

The woman vying for a bit of news was the ''Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.'' The cornerstone to her pedestal was being laid. The statue, a gift from the French people in honor of America's Centennial celebration of its independence, was not without its critics. ''Whether the statue will be an inexpressive mass or a noble work of art,'' one editorial read, ''cannot be told until it is seen in the place and at the distance for which it was designed.''

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The weather in New York City didn't help. It rained cats and dogs throughout the day. The large crowd that had been expected never materialized, with only 1, 500 guests on hand, half of whom were French citizens. According to a contemporary account, emotions rivaled the weather: ''The steamer Bay Ridge, decorated with the tricolors of the French and the Stars and Stripes, was tendered to take the guests, but its capacity received no test.'' As for dignitaries, there were few - the mayors of Newark, N.J., New Haven, Conn., and New Bedford, Mass., a couple of congressmen, and French diplomatic representatives. The mayors of New York and Brooklyn sent their regrets.

At 2 p.m. a band played the ''Marseillaise'' and ''Hail, Columbia,'' and copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and daily newspapers, plus some medals, were placed in the cornerstone. Speeches followed, first by a representative of the French government, who noted that the statue was ''a fitting embodiment of the leading virtue of the American people - their faith in Liberty.'' The American spokesman observed that ''below the crust and craft of diplomacy and statesmanship there exists a genuine sympathy on the part of every people toward every other people, suffering under burdens too grievous to be borne.''

The rain came down even harder as the culminating act neared, and it was difficult for workmen to mix the cement that would be used to seal the stone. But it would be done, and as the small crowd dispersed there was little recognition that this inauspicious ceremony was the beginning of the history of one of the nation's most stirring patriotic monuments.

The formal dedication of the statue would follow in October 1886, and Emma Lazarus's moving sonnet, ''The New Colossus,'' would be inscribed on the pedestal in 1903. Two decades later the statue would be elevated to the status of a national monument and its restoration would be the historic milestone of its centennial year.

Over the years the statue has been the tower of American liberty, although, to be sure, its shining light originated with early Colonists. On board ship to the New World in 1630, John Winthrop preached that ''we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of the people are upon us....'' During the American Revolution the illuminating principles of the Declaration of Independence permeated European shores, and de Tocqueville in 1835 saw the rays of America in terms of ''constant motion (where) every change seems an improvement.'' Early 19th-century immigrants saw liberty in still other hues. ''No one can give orders to anybody here,'' wrote one arrival to his family in Europe. ''One is as good as another.''

For later immigrants the Statue of Liberty was America at its symbolic best. It summarized in a bold way - through a kind of body language - what America was all about. And its visual lessons of liberty, according to my immigrant grandfather and father, would leave its students speechless, misty-eyed, and proud.

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